By Doug Porter
Coming soon to a theater near you will be Davis Guggenheim’s (Director of An Inconvenient Truth) latest documentary entitled Waiting for Superman. The picture, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is a moving and compelling account (I viewed a copy over the internet) of a handful of kids and their parents who simply want to go to a decent school. You can’t help but root for these kids as they wait for the results of a lottery to gain admission to a high performing charter school. You can’t help but despise the portrait it paints of schools systems with that fail miserably at educating kids. And, like any good contemporary documentary, it sends audiences home full of passion, indignation, and outrage. The lessons imparted from Waiting for Superman are: charter schools are saviors, unions are villains.
When the Los Angeles school board invited outside bids to take over 36 new and underperforming schools last year, the assumption was that private charter operators in Los Angeles would be coming into a windfall. After all, Los Angeles already has the most charter schools in the country. Proposals came in from 85 groups, including charter management companies, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s own school franchise, and the teachers union (UTLA).
Teachers, staff, students, and parents impacted by the proposals were allowed to vote on the choices at hand. In a February, 2010 election overseen by the League of Women Voters, 87% of parents voted for teacher-led proposals across the city. High school students also gave significant majorities for teacher-led plans. Not one private charter plan won parent, teacher, or student votes. In the face of overwhelming parent sentiment, the school board awarded control of 29 schools to the teachers’ group, three to the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and four new schools went to charter companies. The lessons imparted from this process seem to be that parents seemed to favor letting the villains—as described in Waiting for Superman—manage the path to salvation (charter schools).
What both these examples having in common are that they have bought into the meme that the crisis in education in the US requires an alternative to the “public school monopoly,” as the first President Bush proclaimed during a summit at Charlottesville, Virginia in 1989 with corporate CEOs and the nation’s governors.
No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the educational legacy of the second President Bush was different from past educational reform schemes—this time the “reformers” would win, no matter what happened. The Act mandated the impossible: 100% math and reading proficiency scores by 2014. When these goals were unmet by the deadline, and a large majority of school systems have failed (or been placed on the “Federal watch-list”), the road to school privatization will be clear sailing. By then, parents should be willing to try anything to stay away from any more Federally-mandated letters telling them that their kids are failures since their schools are failing. State legislatures, dispirited and broke, thanks to the under-funded burdens of NCLB rules, will be desperate and ready to turn the whole effort over to an education industry that will be ramped up and ready to seize the opportunity. And if by some miracle the schools did meet this benchmarks, then the reformers will have succeeded by having rendered schools into scripted testing factories.
President Obama’s educational policy as expressed in the Race To The Top (RTTT) program, replaces some of the more punitive elements of NCLB, with offers of more funding. Along with that money schools get even more Federal oversight. And the underlying premise of NCLB that charter schools are a viable solution remains intact, despite broad testing since 2003 that shows that they are no better (on average) than regular public schools.
Richard Barrera, President of the San Diego Unified School Board (which opted not to apply for RTT funds) describes the current reforms schemes as, “The worst of both big business and big government practices”.
One-time reform-architect-turned-critic Diane Ravitch is even harsher in her criticisms, telling the National Journal,
“The Race to the Top is a collection of ideas that have no basis in research or experience. Taken together, the RTTT will do little to improve American education and might even set it back… … the fundamental principle of American education is, or is supposed to be, equality of educational opportunity, not a “race to the top.”
It’s worth noting here that the RTTT program is the brainchild of Arne Duncan, formerly CEO of the Chicago public school system. Despite all the articles touting his role as reformer in Daleytown, it’s interesting to note in the wake of the Mayor’s recent decision to step down, here’s how the press (AP) characterized the education scene:
“Dozens of new schools have been built and a series of reforms put into place, including ending social promotions. But progress has been slow with many schools still lagging far behind, their students posting poor test scores.”
So, assuming that the critics of NCLB and RTTT are correct, what can be done? Let’s look at another path to reform in Finland, where reforms adopted in 1970’s have achieved results that are respected world-wide.
Students from Finland outperform peers in 43 other nations – including the United States, Germany and Japan – in mathematics, science and reading skills. Finland is also ranked top in economic competitiveness.
In the 1980s, Finland abolished standardized tests in schools. Instead of test-based accountability in schools—because of the high quality of its teaching force—has a trust-based system to allow teachers freedom to teach with creativity and encourages students, autonomy to learn in different ways. Students in Finland cumulatively have fewer instructional hours compared to American students: a teacher in Finland teaches three lessons per day on average, American educators teach seven.
The most compelling difference between the two systems is the high esteem the Finnish have for teachers and school principals. Those who graduate at the top of their class are the only ones who can consider a career in education. It is the most competitive field, more so than medicine and law. The average acceptance rate into schools of education is a mere 10%. In Finland 95% of the teachers are union members and the union works very closely with universities in setting standards for teaching.
Governmental agencies, trade unions and business form a tripartite in Finland, closely coordinating, communicating and heading to a common goal. This partnership, in both the planning and implementation stages, allowed the teachers union to change roles from external political pressure group into a stakeholder in government decision-making. This element has turned out to be the driving force of education performance and economic competitiveness in Finland.
The key in the educational reforms was ‘how to find ways to help schools and teachers come together and share what they have learned about productive teaching techniques and effective schools’. The result was the creation of multi-level communities of schools sharing locally tested practices and enriching ideas, and matching the needs for local economic development. The trade-off that moved teachers into the stakeholder part of the education equation was an understanding between all the political parties that pay and working conditions for educators needed to be a given.
The guiding policy of the Finnish ministry of education is the belief that teachers, together with principals, parents and their communities know how to provide the best possible education for their children and youth. Except for guidelines for learning goals and assessment criteria, The National Board of Education (taking care of curriculum development, evaluation of education and professional support for teachers) doesn’t dictate lesson plans or standardized tests. School can plan their own curriculums to reflect local concerns.
So after reading all this stuff about government, labor and business in Finland cooperating for best interests of their children, are we ready to get our political parties, teachers unions, school boards and chambers of commerce to emulate a proven model that works? I don’t think so. It’s much easier to blame unions as the most available and politically expedient scapegoat for explaining why so many American schools are underperforming. Or we can blame the students, as Washington Post writer Robert J. Samuelson recently did in a piece decrying the failures of big government education reform. Or we can blame the parents as Bill Maher did in this essay, saying
(may as well slip a little humor in here…):
Firing all the teachers may feel good – we’re Americans, kicking people when they’re down is what we do – but it’s not really their fault. Now, undeniably, there are some bad teachers out there. They don’t know the material, they don’t make things interesting, they have sex with the same kid every day instead of spreading the love around… But every school has crappy teachers. Yale has crappy teachers – they must, they gave us George Bush.
Or you can just say—if the idea of working together turns your stomach– that Finland is so different than the United States culturally that what they do up there in the Northland couldn’t possibly have any relevance. After all, they are up there next to Russia, right?
So let’s look at countries that pay their teachers a lot. If money were really important, then countries with the highest teacher salaries—Germany, Spain and Switzerland—would seemingly be among the best. They aren’t. In practice the top performers (Canada, Finland, Japan, Singapore, South Korea) pay no more than average salaries.
England has changed virtually every aspect of education policy over the past 50 years, often more than once. The only thing that hasn’t changed has been the outcome. Australia has almost tripled education spending per student since 1970. No improvement. American spending has doubled since 1980 and we’ve had nearly a decade of high powered reform. Again, nothing.
San Diego’s own experimentation with education reform gets a whole chapter in Diane Ravitchs’ book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. In 1998 the San Diego Unified School District hired former U.S. Attorney Alan Bersin for the city’s top education job. Within three months, he announces a major administrative reorganization, including forming an Institute for Learning, to be headed by New York educator Anthony Alvarado. A year later the school board approves Bersin’s reform proposal, the Blueprint for Student Success. Under the plan, the district implements several strategies to improve literacy and math skills, hires 200 teachers, 75 peer coaches and lays off some 600 teaching assistants.
Critics claim Bersins’ policies were alienating the public and sacrificing comprehensive education for a narrow literacy focus. Retired educator Ernie McCray put it this way,
As a principal when he was at the helm of San Diego City Schools I saw him dismiss people’s concerns and ideas as though he was trying to set a “Guinness record for ignoring people.”
At a meeting in my neighborhood at the beginning of his term he literally turned his back to Latino activist friends of mine because he didn’t “respect” them or their questions. That sure showed.
He took us principals on a yacht cruise around the harbor and before we had barely sailed he made it clear that parents would have very little to say regarding what happened in our schools. Wasn’t long before that was old news.
After seven years, the school board makeup changed and Bersin was out of a job. His supporters (or those who support his methods) are still unhappy about the change. A group calling itself ‘San Diegans 4 Great Schools’ surfaced after months of shadowy meetings to issue a critical report on the San Diego Unified School District back in July. At a press conference group leaders called SDUSD a “failing school district”. Having lost their battles at the school board level, they’ve been bantering about “reforms in governance”, including having the Mayor take over the schools (he’s not interested) and expanding the school board’s size though appointments rather than elections.
Actually, test scores went up during the Bersin era. And they’ve gone up in the post-Bersin era. But up is relative, and nobody’s rushing about ready to claim that SDUSD is setting any kind of records with these scores, even if they are near the top of heap for schools in California cities.
The big deal about the Bersin era in San Diego was that it was, in many ways, a preview of the various kinds of reform programs that have been rolled out nation-wide over the past decade. It was a “top-down” system that was overly reliant on test scores. When teachers, principles and students protested the system, their protests were seen as “proof” that “reforms” were working.
The current management at the school district has been the object of a ceaseless campaign, mostly led by the daily newspaper, to paint it as a tool of the evil teachers union. It’s a typical U-T smear job, whereby facts that don’t fit with their narrative are ignored and the bully pulpit of the editorial page is used whenever possible to remind their readers about their point of view. The SDUSD plan for local schools and parent groups to be key players in local academic programs—Vision 2020—has been given exactly one paragraph near the end of one news story. The district’s refusal to sign on for RTTT has merited numerous stories and editorials.
Once again I’ve blabbed on for too long, so we’ll take a look at the San Diego Unified grand plan for saving our schools in yet another installment of this tome.